I recently spent a long weekend in the infamous Dutch city of Amsterdam, capital of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Mention its name and people’s eyebrows immediately twitch upwards as they conjure up all manner of racy happenings. Famous for its wild side, its cannabis cafes and red-light district, Amsterdam is also a very beautiful, historic and cultured destination for a long weekend. Oddly I didn’t seem to take as many pictures as my usual snap-happy self is wont to do, and although not my best shot I do like the above because it contains so many of the not so seedy things that all who have visited Amsterdam must surely love about this fair city. We have flowers, Rembrandt, bicycles, canals and boats, all bordered by tall, skinny townhouses. Fabulous.
The first sign that the pup was exhausted from her day’s exertions and from being cooed over by lots of passers-by happened just after we escaped a frighteningly, and no doubt illegally, over-packed park-and-ride bus. As we walked back to the car there was a sudden tug on her lead, at which point we realised she was sprawled on the grass, belly down, legs extended front and back, refusing to walk another step. Comedy gold. Of course, she promptly followed that up by the not-so-comedy-gold emptying of her (you would think tiny, but you would be wrong) bladder all over reception’s, thankfully moppable, floor. Oh, the embarrassment. And that ladies and gentlemen is why I don’t have a pet: deniability. Off I toddled, leaving Big sis to deal with the shame of her incontinent pet.
It had recently been the matriarch’s birthday, so we had planned a family dinner out. Unfortunately the World Heritage celebrations and accompanying tourist hordes in Ironbridge scuppered our plans for a nice little restaurant in the centre of town, preferably with a view of that famous iron bridge. Instead we went to somewhere nice and close to the hotel, finding ourselves in one of those themed establishments on a roundabout next to an industrial estate, lovely. It was the stuff birthday dreams are made of, honest. However, it is always nice to be together and we do have a tendency to make the best of any given situation, so we soldiered on. I think mum was the only person celebrating a birthday in there that night who hadn’t had a cake arranged for her. At first I felt a little guilty as Stiff Pilchard’s iconic 1968 song ‘Congratulations’ rang out from the tinny stereo system and a birthday cake passed by with so many candles burning furiously on it that I’m surprised it didn’t set off the sprinklers. It was almost cute, but by the eighth time (I kid you not) I felt like we had descended one gloriously buttercreamed spectacle at a time into the very pits of birthday hell.
We rounded off the day by getting lost in a car park. How it happened is beyond me, but there was something hilariously comedic about being trapped in an industrial estate car park late at night somewhere near Telford, doomed to make circuits of the same damn parking bays. It was a bit like that episode of Father Ted when they get lost in the ladies underwear section of a department store, with every corner they turn leading them back to where they started, just without the Catholic priests and the lacy lingerie obviously.
We commenced day two with a visit to the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, heralded on the Ironbridge website as once having been ‘the most famous ironworks in the world’, a mighty boast. We were forced to split up at this stage as the museum didn’t cater for pups, so half toured the museum whilst the other half explored the grounds and the remains of Abraham Darby’s revolutionary water-powered blast furnace. My favourite part of the museum was undoubtedly the top floor, where a display of decorative ironwork from the time of the Great Exhibition made me want to rush out and purchase a country pile and commence filling it with intricate yet cumbersome creations whilst preparing a hearty meal on my very own Aga.
Just up the road from the ironworks are the Darby houses, the former homes of the Darby family, Coalbrookdale’s Quaker ironmasters. We made our way around two houses, the first offered the usual historic house visitor experience with an added, and very entertaining, extra. Having heard delighted shrieks coming from the final room, we entered to find a whole rail of period costumes to try on – and by ‘we’ I obviously just mean the female contingent, minus the hound, the blokes having declared the houses a bit dull. Big sis and I needed no encouragement, and in the time it would take any normal woman to conjure up an image of Mr Darcy emerging sodden from the pond at Pemberley, we were working our inner Pride and Prejudice.
House number two was not quite so thrilling. It had at some point been butchered by landlords chasing a cheap buck and was only just being carefully restored to its former splendour.
From Coalbrookdale we drove to the Jackfield Tile Museum, again splitting up to take care of P. Whilst the parentals visited the museum, the young-uns went off in search of a craft centre. This involved a walk down one of the worst tarmacked country roads I think i’ve ever encountered, we’re talking serious 4×4 territory. It also had a very strange section of wooden planking, which I’m sure served a purpose when they laid it, but now simply warns you that something’s barrelling along alarmingly fast behind you. The craft centre was a bit of a let-down, the highlight for my sister being when the proprietor of a particularly out there alternative shop asked if we were twins. I’m hoping they were taking two years off her and not adding them on to me.
Back at the tile museum, we handed over the pup and left the folks sitting in the sunshine whilst we explored what was a surprisingly interesting tourist attraction. I’ll admit to having mocked my mum when she first recommended it, but who knew tiles would be so fascinating? After wandering around the main showrooms, admiring an incredible range of designs created over the last couple of hundred years, we found ourselves in a mock-up of a London underground station and then a pub with a fantastic tiled bar. It was a delightful way to spend an hour or so and was only improved by tea and crumpets outside afterwards, all on an unseasonably warm September day.
I was probably done by then if I’m honest, but we decided we could probably cram in one more if we really tried. The Coalport China Museum was a bit of a stroll along the canal, past the craft centre, near the Tar Tunnel from day one. I will freely admit to not really noticing anything about it, other than perhaps some big cone-shaped chimney things, museum fatigue had well and truly set in. It was time to call it a day and head for home.
Ironbridge definitely offers a full weekend’s entertainment and the passport was a great buy. In the style of my National Trust membership, I couldn’t help but keep a running total of the official entry fees of each museum in order to ensure we were getting our money’s worth and I’m pleased to report that we did. It is also worth noting at this point that the passport is valid for a year, so if you happen to find yourself in town again you can pop along to the museums, even those you’ve already been into, without having to pay twice. I would recommend most of the museums we visited, with perhaps the exception of the last. The pottery museum failed to sustain my interest, but this might have been the result of museum overload. If I’d seen it on day one, perhaps it would have been extremely interesting. You also definitely need your own transport to do the museums justice. The park-and-ride buses are great, but fitting everything in whilst at the mercy of someone else’s timetable is not ideal. The Ironbridge Gorge is undoubtedly very beautiful, providing a stunning backdrop to what was a fascinating trip back into a rich period in the UK’s industrial heritage. A definite must-see.
Piha, a name that strikes fear into the heart of anyone who has ever watched New Zealand’s far less bright and shiny version of Australia’s guilty pleasure docusoap Bondi Rescue. Bondi, for anyone who doesn’t know their antipodean beaches, is a Sydney coastal suburb famous for its pounding and powerful surf and ever-so-hot, golden-tanned, Aussie beach bum lifeguards, a draw for a vast percentage of young gap-year travellers from across the globe who visit Australia every year. Piha may be less sunny, with slightly less golden sand, and not such hot, Home and Away style lifeguards, but its waves are every bit as fierce, hammering against the black iron sand and the beach’s dominant edifice Lion Rock, its rips dragging even the most seasoned surfers away from its shores and into unexpected danger, and unfortunately taking the lives of the occasional unassuming visitor and the odd local, who, frankly, if they’ve seen it on the telly, should know better. Only 40 minutes from New Zealand’s capital, and situated on the ever scenic west coast of New Zealand, Piha is a village at best, in fact less than a thousand people consider it home. I was drawn by the TV show, Piha Rescue, and a boyfriend who was checking out new accommodation just along the coastline at Bethells Beach. This was back in 2010 when life seemed a little simpler and I was yet to experience the heartbreak of leaving the country that I loved for a man I was seemingly destined to lose anyway. We visited Piha with some Hanmer Springs lifeguard buddies after taking part in the King of the Bays ocean swim over in Auckland. I took this photo of my pal A as he contemplated his next move on his new wake board. Taken through my sunnies I think the tint adds a moody edge to the occasion, highlighting a solitary, thoughtful, figure, standing alone on an unsettled day, trying not to wipe out in the shallow surf and lose face in front of his mates. Fun times, great place, wonderful memories.
This Friday I planned to run, I would head to Regent’s Park where last week in the English Garden I had encountered a sculpture park (Frieze London) in the rain, running slowly past some incredible and unexpected artworks, stopping briefly to examine a giant head that although flat had been painted in such a way as to show the three-dimensional image of a face. If it hadn’t been raining I would have had my camera and would have battled with probably numerous passers-by for a photo to post here. However, lunchtime arrived and laziness overwhelmed me. Should I head for a coffee shop and counteract all the good work that running is supposedly doing for my figure? Or should I head for the consumer hell of Oxford Street and waste some of my hard-earned salary attempting to fit into the fashions of the London scene? Fortunately I was musing aloud, and my colleague came up with an alternative suggestion: ‘How about the Grant Museum of Zoology’, she said? Near Euston Station, it’s free and open from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. And that’s how I found myself staring intently at a large jar of pickled moles in a small but exceptionally interesting museum.
The Grant Museum of Zoology is a natural history museum, part of University College London, and the only remaining university zoological museum in London. Housing around 67,000 specimens, covering the whole of the animal kingdom, it takes up a tiny space in the Rockefeller Building on the corner of Gower Street and University Street.
It was founded in 1828 as a teaching collection, and is simply jam-packed with weird and wonderful things: skeletons, microscope slides showing bugs and wormy things and tiny plant life, mounted animals, bisected animal heads (slightly alarming), and basically odd-looking things pickled in jars. Many of the species on display are now endangered or extinct, including the Tassie Tiger (there’s one of these minus its head and paws in a fluid-filled jar, yum) and the Dodo. Thankfully it wasn’t horribly busy and it was great to see students interacting with the exhibits in the course of their studies at the same time as Joe Public was trundling around. It’s a real, functioning university museum and I was quite jealous of their educational endeavours. And for a room chock-full of so many dead things it truly fizzed with life.
The jar of moles can be found in the case directly ahead of you as you enter, I, perhaps rather oddly, really recommend a visit if you find yourself in that part of London.
The weekend of 21/22 September saw a gathering of d’family. Regrettably, what had originally been planned as a full family gathering, a mysterious event that happens once in a blue moon, had been reduced to our little branch. However, it would still enable our little section to spend some quality time together before mum went into hospital to have her brain re-caged the following week (thanks for that particular phrase Big sis). I don’t plan to get into it in any great detail, but let’s just say that the matriarch had been left with a big hole in her skull last Christmas when the titanium plate she had had put in over ten years previously (after a benign tumour was removed) had failed and started poking through the skin on her scalp. It had taken the good old National Health Service nearly ten months to get round to replacing it, but we were all extremely grateful that soon she would once again be safe from low flying objects and unexpected bumpages.
The retirees and those with better working hours would be setting off by car during the day, leaving me to the mercy of our wonderful public transport system. This would involve what I am now calling the Euston scramble. Commuters stand tightly packed (like penguins at the South Pole, huddling together for warmth against a fierce polar wind) staring intently at the overhead screens. Unable to turn away for a second in case their platform number flashes up, you could probably do a groovy little dance in front of them and have no one bat an eyelid. Then, once the platform is revealed, they charge at great speed towards said platform, crushing anyone idiotic enough to step into their path. It’s frankly alarming and could inspire tremendous panic in the uninitiated. I had a seat reservation and yet still found myself charging right along with them.
The journey wasn’t too bad; after changing briefly at Birmingham International I finally approached a dark and slightly sinister (to the solo woman traveller) Telford Station at about 9 p.m. My family had forsaken me, preferring to dive into a couple of bottles of plonk having had fairly long journeys themselves, so I found a black cab (no mean feat) and eventually joined them at the hotel.
On arrival I had to undertake the special puppy greeting ceremony. Big sis and her fella have a new pup, we’ll call her P (aptly named), and if she hasn’t seen you for five minutes she gets a little over excited and pees on your feet, the floor, basically whatever’s under her at that particular time. Bless, if she wasn’t so damn cute it would be quite disgusting.
The following day, after a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we commenced a two-day museum marathon. We started at Blists Hill Victorian Town, spending £24 on an annual museum passport that would get us into all the attractions in the local area. Blists Hill is an open-air museum based around an eighteenth and nineteenth century industrial area. It hosts original buildings from the area’s industrial past, combined with replicas of various generic Victorian shops, including a chemist, a chippy, a sweet shop and a pub, and other buildings that have been moved wholesale to the site from other places. It’s quite an impressive place, and as most of the buildings burn coal for heat you really get a sense of how thick and smoggy the air must have been back in the industrial revolution. Walking through the extensive grounds also affords an insight into the tremendous ingenuity of that era. At the end of a woodland trail you come across the remnants of an inclined plane, used to transport boats over 200 feet between canals at massively different heights during a time when canals played an extremely important role in British industry. Blists Hill can definitely fill several hours of your day and is well worth a visit.
Next up was the tar tunnel, perhaps one of the oddest attractions I’ve visited on my travels. In 1787, whilst digging a tunnel for the canal, miners discovered a spring of natural bitumen. Realising the greater financial gains that could be obtained from extracting the bitumen, the original canal project was abandoned (the inclined plane was eventually built to cover this). We were lucky, arriving when the tunnel was empty. We were issued with hard hats and soon found ourselves walking slightly stooped down a damp and eerie tunnel. In small side tunnels you could still see little lakes of bitumen and in places it still actually seeps from the main tunnel’s walls. As I’m sure you’ll agree, it is very unusual tourist attraction.
I’d been in Shropshire for over half a day and still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of this famous iron bridge, the main reason for our visit. It just so happened that the area was celebrating many years of inclusion on the World Heritage list by hosting a festival in the centre of Ironbridge itself, and had closed off a number of roads. The easiest option was to leave the car at Blists Hill and join the rugby scrum on the park and ride bus. The sun was blazing, the crowds were overwhelming and the festival’s prancing Morris Dancers as peculiar as ever. We ambled across the bridge, an incredible construction in a truly beautiful setting, and visited the small Tollhouse museum on the other side. We then joined the tourist hordes walking along the riverside. Having a very cute small dog is not ideal in these circumstances, not only does she think that absolutely everyone on the planet was put here to give her strokes and cuddles, the little minx is actually quite right, they were. When we finally made it to museum number four, the Museum of the Gorge, we were parched and a little frazzled. In all honesty, it probably wasn’t worth the effort.
We had an idea to walk from here to the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, but realised that time was running out for getting back on the park and ride. So instead we fought our way once again to the iron bridge end of the street, stopping briefly to buy huge cakes and doggie treats along the way.
I was pleased with our museum efforts, but not convinced we had yet come close to covering the cost of the passport. We would have to go some to get our money’s worth on day two.
To be continued.
I am currently ensconced in an absurdly challenging project, and being the sickeningly conscientious person that I am I have imposed a travel ban on myself until after the product in question has launched. This is depressing, especially for someone who is happiest when either travelling or planning her next travel experience. My last holiday is already a dim and distant memory and I have finally run out of ideas for blog posts in which to talk about it. So, today I did what I had to do, the only thing sensible in these circumstances; in order to insert a glimmer of future excitement into my life I planned a little adventure. Thankfully there was one travel buddy I could call on in my time of need, no, not B this time. Enter K. I firmly believe that every single girl should have an array of potential travelling companions, people she can call on to make trips thoroughly more exciting than if she had gone on her own. Someone to sightsee with, to eat, to drink and to people watch with. Someone to create memories with. Saying to a friend, ‘remember when we ate Sachertorte at that fancy café in Vienna’ is infinitely better than simply recalling that time you ate Sachertorte alone in that busy café in Vienna, whilst everyone chattered and gorged on cake around you. So, hurray to K for being available and for being as travel hungry as me (potentially even more so considering she’s already been to Amsterdam, our destination of choice). In honour of our impending Dutch adventure I post a photo that blatantly isn’t a tulip.
Atapuerca to Burgos
The hostel in Atapuerca wasn’t glamorous or unusual in any way, in fact it looked more like someone’s house: an unassuming bungalow separated into small bunk bed-crammed dorm rooms. It was warm though and thankfully there was plenty of hot water and a washing machine. We were sharing a room with some Norwegian ladies we had seen on and off along the Way. Whilst chatting for a while about our travels, we discovered they had been at the really nice hostel with the lovely courtyard when we were huddled in the stark and spooky monastery. They had, however, also experienced the pleasure of sharing a dorm earlier on the Camino with the horrid snoring man. For the sake of all good hostel dwellers I at least hoped that there was only one of him. I bonded with one lady over our shared midnight hope that he had died mid snore, not something either of us was very proud of but should give you an idea of just how bad the experience was.
After checking out we headed for a rather lovely café and undertook a spot of Norwegian stalking whilst eating a very large apple Danish (it was nice to find other pilgrims who insisted on a good strong coffee and a cake for breakfast). It was probably a good thing that we would be arriving in Burgos that day and heading back to reality. If you’ve ever watched ‘The Way’, I now totally understand how Jorst from Amsterdam could walk all 800 km of the Camino and fail to lose any weight. But the café was warm and welcoming and also stocked an array of African beaded jewellery from the owner’s travels abroad if you were inclined to purchase a little non-Camino-related treasure.
The day was a little chilly but generally quite bright as we marched through town and headed out into the countryside and uphill. Grassy farmland, reminiscent of the Highlands of Scotland, or New Zealand’s Canterbury plains, gave way to a rockier landscape and we found ourselves skirting a military base, separated from our trail by some pretty nasty razor wire. A mist settled on the landscape and the higher we climbed, the foggier it became. And then, just as we were feeling very alone and slightly unsure of our surroundings, we heard the snarling, guttural bark of some evil beast coming from inside the razor wire. Now, this was not the most appealing sound to hear when you are walking in fairly dense fog with no obvious escape routes and no handy trees to climb, but when you also factor in a friend who had been chased and attacked by a rabid hound only months before in Chile, you can probably imagine how anxious we suddenly found ourselves. Should we go back and wait for our Norwegian comrades, believing there would be safety in numbers? Or should we walk on and risk having our throats torn out by some evil military canine, trained to take down men far bigger and nastier than us?
We hovered, indecisively. The Norwegians didn’t show.
I put on a far braver front than in reality I felt, grabbing B tightly by the arm. And whilst whispering hopefully reassuring words (for her as well as me) walked us very slowly and non-threateningly past the site of the barking. We did not see whatever it was that was so upset by our presence, for all I know it was just a cute little Chihuahua with a loudhailer, but in my mind we escaped from something more akin to the Hound of the Baskervilles that day and I would definitely be celebrating with something cold and extremely alcoholic in Burgos later.
At the top of the hill the fog was as thick and grey as a traditional British raincloud. Thankfully other pilgrims had put the littering of rocks to good use and made some arrows, directing us along the path.
There was also another mysterious swirling pattern, far bigger than yesterday’s. Do people really have time to spend on random foggy hills, next to scary military basis, home to snarling beasties, fannying around making rock circles? Or are they perhaps the Spanish version of a crop circle? Whilst I was pondering such things B suddenly laughed out loud. One particular signpost had caught her eye and she had to explain her amusement. It declared that we were in a position to see one of the most beautiful views on the Camino. It reminded me of our trip to northern Norway in 2006 when we had reached Nordkapp, prepared for an incredible expansive view of the ocean in the arctic circle from the northern-most point(ish) of the coast of Norway, only to be greeted with thick fog. Perhaps we were always destined to see supposedly magical views this way.
B was concerned for the welfare of the Norwegians, imagining them being eaten by wolves or lost forever on a foggy hilltop. But there wasn’t much we could do about that, and so, like the heartless woman I am, I insisted we moved on. As we descended the hill, the fog of course dissipated. A fork in the road brought another sign, this one suggesting that pilgrims should take the safer route via Villalval. What was so dangerous about the other route? We couldn’t tell from the sign, and so, like the trusting maidens we are, we ignored it and took the Camino, believing the locals were just trying to get some passing trade.
We came across no visible dangers and after a slow, winding descent along a very deserted country road we found ourselves in an almost deserted town: Cardenuela-Riopico. We had a coffee to still our nerves and tried to avoid the small barking dog that of course had decided to frequent the café at the same moment.
This was almost the last of the countryside, as we walked out of Orbaneja we were met by the motorway and a random new housing development plonked unceremoniously between two overpasses. We followed a muddy path down the side of the complex and tramped along it to Burgos, passing an aerodrome and several factories. This was not the most scenic portion of the way.
We finally hit the outskirts of Burgos, passing the San Miguel brewery and a particularly garish roundabout, decorated with an impressive shell-shaped fountain and some big golden balls. We then somehow lost the way. After all our mocking of other lost pilgrims we really couldn’t see any yellow arrows. We stopped in a busy bar for a glass of red and some sustenance (patatas bravas), hoping for some inspiration. And this is why it is good to stop and take stock along the way, to enjoy an occasional time out eating good food and imbibing a fruity glass of wine. As we sat wondering where the hell we were and how we had veered off the path, B looked up and was rewarded with an arrow on a lamppost opposite the café. Fabulous.
The new Burgos gradually gave way to the far more camera-friendly old Burgos and suddenly we were at the hostel, right next door to surely one of Europe’s largest Cathedrals. Our accommodation cost the remarkable sum of €5. You really couldn’t have asked for a better spot.
Burgos cathedral is incredibly imposing, but at €7 to enter (non-pilgrim; for pilgrims it’s about €3.50), I couldn’t really muster the enthusiasm to end our trek as we had begun. Instead we gathered around the statue of a pilgrim sat on a park bench holding his walking stick and had a group picture taken.
We had walked for 11 days and covered over 220 km. Not a particularly impressive distance considering the time frame, but then it was never a race. We hiked, we sang, we ate bocadillos and Neapolitans until they were coming out of our eyeballs, we laughed and fortunately didn’t have cause to cry, we cursed ignorant snoring men, we experienced sun, snow, rain, hail and fog, and probably drank our own body weight in red wine. In conclusion, we had a great Camino.